With the Buffalo Flash confirming its intent Monday to potentially make a bid for a Women’s Professional Soccer team in 2011, there is no better time than now to explore an idea that I have discussed with various people that may just be an ideal business plan for WPS should changes need to be made to the current business model.
Although sponsorship is up, attendance clearly is not. The current average attendance is below 4,000 fans per game, a drop of about 15 percent (as it stands a little over halfway through the season) from the 2009 average of 4,493 fans per game. Since June 12, there have only been two crowds larger than 4,000 people outside Harvard Stadium: June 30 at the All-Star Game in Kennesaw, Ga. (4,610) and July 10 at Toyota Park when Chicago drew 4,064. The current average obviously falls well short of the five-percent to 10-percent increase that WPS Commissioner Tonya Antonucci set as a goal for 2010 and teams are feeling the pressures of getting fans in the seats.That along with the Buffalo news prompts me to propose this idea – an idea that some may find absurd and others will see where I am coming from and recognize the merit of it. With various WPS teams struggling to draw in 2010 and travel being one of the main expenses beyond salaries and gameday operations, it might be wise of the league to take a serious look at regionalizing its efforts.
Three of the seven WPS teams would be considered to be geographically located in the Northeast while five of the seven are located on the East Coast. FC Gold Pride sits alone on the West Coast and will continue to do so in 2011 and, it seems, 2012. The news of Dallas being in the running for a 2012 expansion team is great to hear from the perspective of owners being interested, but Dallas is nowhere close to Northern California. If only Dallas entered WPS in 2012, FC Gold Pride would still be alone on the West Coast and Dallas would then be alone in the middle of the country. In fact, Dallas is over twice as far from San Francisco as it is Atlanta. Dallas is similarly a little over half the distance from Chicago as it is San Francisco.
So, essentially, that is a couple more long plane rides each year for every other WPS team and still does not provide FC Gold Pride with a short away trip. Nor does it provide Chicago or, hypothetically, Dallas with much of a short trip.
Regionalizing the league, however, could slash the monsters that are travel expenses. In talking to several knowledgeable soccer personalities, the term ‘bus league’ was used at one point and while it is less than glorious, it seems to be a realistic option for controling expenses and building the league.
Pretend for a moment that WPS markets were focused solely in a core pod in the Northeast (a general term) with some minor extensions like Chicago and Atlanta. With the exception of the Pride, that is exactly what WPS is right now. Regionalizing the league would change very little in terms of teams. Yes it would mean FC Gold Pride – the one West Coast team – would have to find a way to bring its operations east and believe me, I am the last person who wants to see another market abandoned.
But moving a team is much less of a black eye than folding a team. In an ‘East Coast league,’ Atlanta (and even Chicago) would then become the teams farthest away from the generally speaking close cities of Boston, Piscataway, N.J., Philadelphia and Washington. An ideal place to fill that gap between Atlanta and Washington might be Cary, N.C., where the Carolina Courage once played in the soccer-specific WakeMed Soccer Park (then SAS Soccer Park). There, the Courage averaged 5,603 fans in their three years of existence (32 games) from 2001-2003.
Do I think Buffalo, N.Y. can handle a WPS team? No, not in this version of the league, anyway. But in an East Coast-oriented league where most road games are on a bus? Maybe, even though it is still a stretch.
Regardless, the scope of the idea is much larger than just Buffalo. Would such a league allow for the ever-sought out and never found national footprint that even MLS still does not have? No, but it is tough for WPS to claim a national footprint right now anyway. I don’t see fans turning their backs on the league because all of a sudden the lone West Coast team has moved east for financial purposes. With a strong core of youth soccer fans, most young people would not even notice if the local rival came to town a few more times a year instead of some other team, and developing local rivalries is necessary anyway. Teams need to be relavent locally to succeed, not nationally. As long as the best players in the world are still playing in WPS, the league can still take claim to being the world’s best and people will still turn up for matches.
The United States is not England or another geographically small country that can easily make a truly national league work. It is a tough beast to conquer 3,537,441 square miles, so starting small and expanding outward does not sound like a terrible idea. If the league finds financial success that way and builds a strong foundation, then it would be wise to branch out and start moving south and west of Chicago. In truth, keeping operations in a tight geographic area is a smart idea.
Without seeing all of the books, I cannot claim that this is what has to be done right now or maybe even ever. I can say that it is a good enough idea for WPS to give some thought to and it is a model that worked at the PDL, W-League, WPSL and NPSL levels. There is no extensive travel unless teams make the final four. It is just a way to control costs and perhaps it could be a way to help a young women’s soccer league flourish.
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